The minister’s knickers

“The Parallel has tree faces,” writes Max Aub in Campo cerrado, “day, night, and Sunday morning.” The Parallel–crammed with artistes and whores–was a key location in the rise of the anarchist gangsters for whom Orwell fought, yet the Church of England’s favourite anarchist seems to have missed it and various other crucial locations on the Ilkley hen-party trail.

My next Aubcerpt evokes life down the Parallel in language which at times is not particularly easy to understand, although he does worse brain-streaming elsewhere. I’ve been fairly literal (except when I got bored); a more radical approach would probably work better. Anyway, protagonist Rafael Serrador is a Valencian who comes to Barcelona to work as messenger boy for a Catalan Carlist and progresses to political contract killings before dying of typhus; here he is in mellow mood:

Without knowing why, Serrador likes the vaudevilles. They soothe him with their small stages, their dancing girls, their chanteuses, their pornography, their yellowish half-light, their aura, their heat, their tunes, their smell, their sweaty vapours–a transplanted barracks of tobacco and armpit odours. The workers come to enjoy themselves, work on their shoulders, dust on their backs. The floor of the theatre fills with the recently washed, who are doing very nicely indeed; people visit the halls by chance, enter, and leave without rhyme or reason. In the aisles there’ll be someone who’ll wander around for five minutes, someone looking for a friend, someone who’s come to test the air and, because it doesn’t take his fancy, leaves and continues on a tour of neighbouring establishments. There are shopkeepers who come every day to have a coffee and read the Noticiero Universal [a Barcelona daily] in peace–swish glasses, tight arses–from time to time casting a glance at the show; a few soldiers; more sailors; poseurs who wander around the stage with an eye on the main chance; dockers; the unemployed; respectable couples from the barrio; retired ladies with their sugar daddies, looking down with complicit superiority on the flock of artists gathered in the proscenium boxes, if they are free; in the background, separated by a curtain, a dark screen, or a window, silent men play whist and other card games, their chips dirty, their greasy cards well shuffled: they are all sharps and play a straight game; to the left or the right of the bar at the far end they serve the dark-skinned waiters, teaspoons the only sound. The people are split into two: the regulars and the rest; the former are in the majority and are joined by roamers on a to-and-fro from a night out on the girls.

At this moment in time, Anguera de Sojo is minister of labour in Lerroux IV, having previously distinguished himself as civil governor of Barcelona in 1931 by putting down a revolutionary rent strike. This strike (in one of several interpretations) pitted a Spanish-speaking underclass against their Catalan-speaking landlords and formed the background to this kind of stuff during the mass killings here in the summer of 1936.

Staged pornography is simple and comes in two kinds: the first consists of showing what you’ve got–these poor women have nothing else, and what they have belongs as much to any old fun-loving, lovesick gentleman as to them–and usually occupies the first part of the show; the second tries to insinuate cunningly, manipulating with that old nudge nudge, wink wink, causing unbearable suffering or divine pleasure. An artiste who combines these two styles is worth her weight in gold, and her name will shine incandescent from magazine covers and be allotted half a meter on billboards. Showing what you’ve got has its ups and its downs and is dependent on politics, on the governor and his police force. The Republic is chaste and it has been necessary to resort to subterfuge to enable the show to go on; under Anguera de Sojo’s rule the poor dears invented knickers with artificial fluff which permitted the exercise of passions within the bounds of the law. Known as “Anguera de Sojo’s Trousers,” government intemperance prohibited them as well. Ingenuity is rarely rewarded by the State.

Il aimait particulièrement le tabac américain (que les poilus [French infantrymen] appelaient tabac anglais).” But what is it, and why was this name given to recycled product in Barcelona?

The show begins at half past nine and lasts till half past twelve, which is when the super-tango (artistes and gentlemen only!) starts. Benches are cleared quickly from the floor while waiters and the doorman sweep up peanut shells, newspapers left behind by the crowd, a dust cloud; butts are collected to make English tobacco; spit is covered with sawdust. The florist puts her affairs in order, the orchestra moves from one side of the hall to the other. In vaudevilles of little account this time of life is usually one of solitude and sadness; to the burble of a loaded drunk, waiters chat around a table; cabaret girls and artistes spend time in the toilet; one takes off her shoes and dozes on a divan; another is relaxing at the bar. In some dark theatre box, voices can be heard: “I tell you, these stockings cost me four pesetas at Vehils!”

One, two, three pairs dance; afterwards they whisper round a table, seeing if they can swindle an hour from the floor manager. The tired or agitated young man goes to talk to the artistic director to ask him if he’ll let the artiste go before five in the morning; normally he manages to get half an hour, just so long as no precedent is set.

Towards half past ten the authorities’ secret agents appear, bells ring, and all the artistes put on the knickers. The public, as confounded as anyone, scream, shout, protest; the artistes retire without waving adieu.

“Get lost! We want to see it!”
Those just entering wait quietly by the door for a moment.
“I swear to you they showed them yesterday!” says a lad.
“We’ll come back tomorrow, maybe we’ll get lucky then,” says the other. And they leave. The doorman smugly watches them pass.

OK, it’s not La colmena, but I’m still surprised that this sextology seems to be available in translation only in German.

Serrador gusta, sin saber por qué, de los cafés cantants. Le aduermen con su tabladillo, sus bailarinas, sus tonadilleras, su pornografía, su media luz amarillenta, su halo, su calor, su misiquilla, su olor, su vaho de sudores, cuartel replantado de tabacos y sobaquinas. Los trabajadores vienen a solazarse, con su trabajo a hombros, su polvo a cuestas. El patio de un teatro se llena de gentes recién lavadas que tienen con qué; al music-hall se va por casualidad, se entra y se sale sin orden ni concierto. Por los pasillos hay quien zangolotea cinco minutos, quien viene a buscar a un amigo, quien se llega a husmear el ambiente y porque no cuaja con su ánimo sálese y sigue la ronda de los establecimientos hermanos. Hay tenderos que vienen a diario a tomar el café y a leer tranquilamente el Noticiero Universal, bien caladas las gafas y las posaderas, echando, de tarde en tarde, un reojo al espectáculo; soldados, que son pocos; marinos y marineros, que son más; chulos que vagan por los alrededores del escenario, al ojo de su bien; los obreros del puerto; los sin trabajo; las honradas parejas del barrio; las retiradas y sus costeadores con visos de superioridad cómplice hacia la grey de artistas acumulada en los palcos proscenios, si están libres; en el fondo, atajado por una cortina, un biombo oscuro, una mampara o una cristalera, unos hombres silenciosos juegan al julepe o al burro, las fichas por lo verde, naipes grasientos bien peinados: como todos son fulleros, se juega honradamente; en el bar, en el fondo, a la derecha o a la izquierda, sirven, sin más ruido que el de las cucharillas, a los camareros morenos. Toda esta gente se encierra en dos: los parroquianos y los que no lo son; hay mayoría de los primeros, añádense los volanderos, los que van y vienen de putañear.

La pornografía escénica es sencilla y de dos clases: la primera consiste en enseñar lo suyo –¡no tienen otra cosa las pobres, y tan suyo como del primer señorito marchoso y en mal de amores!–, y suele darse en la primera parte del espectáculo; la segunda trata de insinuar con malicia, decir o menearse con segundas: fuente de la inaguantable o de la gracia. Si una artista reúne las dos maneras hácese de oro y su nombre alcanza la incandescencia en las portadas, el medio metro en las carteleras. El enseñen tiene sus altibajos y es secuela de la política, depende del gobernador y su policía. La República es casta y ha habido que recurrir a subterfugios para poder salir adelante; bajo el mando de Anguera de Sojo las tristes inventaron unas bragas con pelusilla artificial que salvaban la ley y permitían los entusiasmos; llamábaseles «Pantalones Anguera de Sojo». La intemperancia gubermental los prohibió a su vez. La ingeniosidad es rara vez recompensada por el Estado. El espectáculo empieza a las nueve y media; dura hasta las doce y media. A esa hora empieza el super-tango, reservado a las artistas y a los señoritos. Quítanse los bancos del patio con celeridad, mientras los camareros y el portero barren el polvo levantándolo, las cáscaras de cacahuate, los periódicos que la cáfila ha dejado; recógense las colillas para fabricar tabaco inglés; cúbrense de serrín las expectoraciones. Compónese la florista, trasládase la orquesta de un lado a otro de la sala. En los cafés cantantes de poca monta este tiempo de vida suele estar hecho de soledad y tristeza; a la queda del borracho billetudo, los camareros charlan alrededor de una mesa; las tanguistas y las artistas se pasan el tiempo en el lavabo, alguna se quita los zapatos y dormita en un diván: otra está repantigada en el bar. En algún palco oscuro se oyen voces: –¡Pues a mí estas medias me han costado cuatro pesetas en casa Vehils!

Bailan una, dos, tres parejas; cuchichean luego alrededor de una mesa viendo la manera de estafarle una hora al régisseur. El joven rijoso o cansado va a hablar con el director artístico para pedirle que deje salir a la artista antes de las cinco de la mañana; se suele conseguir media hora, con tal de no sentar precedente.
Hacia las diez y media aparecen los agentes secretos de la autoridad, suenan los timbres y todas las artistas se ponen las bragas. El público, tan en el intríngulis como cualquiera, chilla, vocea, protesta; las artistas se retiran sin saludar.

–¡Que se vaya! ¡Que lo enseñe!
Los que entran a esas horas se están quietos cerca de la puerta un momento.
–¡Te aseguro que ayer enseñaban! –dice un mozalbetillo.
–Volveremos mañana, a ver si tenemos más suerte –dice el otro. Y se van. El portero les mira pasar condescendiente.

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